Getting to know Agatha

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Agatha Christie has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, yet somehow, I’ve never really pursued my curiosity in any depth. As I’m reading a Poirot mystery a month this year for one of my 2019 bookish goals, this felt like the perfect opportunity to get stuck in to all things Christie! I thought I’d share what I’ve come up with so far- I’ve stumbled upon some proper AC treasures😊

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The Shedunnit podcast: I came across this podcast by sheer coincidence recently and it is as if  the creator and host, Caroline Crampton, has created a podcast just for me – themed episodes focusing on the golden era of crime fiction – yay! Each episode is so thoroughly researched, so interesting and beautifully broadcast – I highly recommend a listen. Anyway, the podcast episode titled The Lady Vanishes, is one based on the much-deliberated disappearance of Agatha Christie for 11 days in December 1926 and it was a great way into Christie’s world.

Two fascinating articles online: “How Agatha Christie’s wartime nursing role gave her a lifelong taste for poison” (The Guardian) and “Agatha Christie shaped how the world sees Britain” (BBC Culture). Both were incidentally recommended on twitter by @ShedunnitShow.

The Agatha Christie website: quite an obvious one to mention really but an informative source for all things Christie, including themed reading guides and a Read Christie 2019 challenge.

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A graphic novel: Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie by Anne Martinetti, Guillaume Lebeau and Alexandre Frank. When searching for books on AC and wanting to go beyond the usual biography type affair, I found this promising looking graphic novel – I’m really getting into reading graphic novels as portals into non-fiction. I’ve only had a quick flick through so far but the artwork in itself is fabulous. I shall report back.

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The autobiography: Well, it’s got to be done hasn’t it! I’m really intrigued to see what she wanted people to know about herself, her writing and the life she led. I think I’ll borrow this book from my local library (because libraries are fantastic places for finding non-fiction if you’re not by nature a non-fiction enthusiast and book funds are lacking).

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Just for fun: Agatha Christie as a special agent! I’ve just started listening to the first audio book of a series by Andrew Wilson, called A Talent for Murder. I love the premise so much and am keeping everything crossed that this is a series I can get addicted to. Book two, A Different Kind of Evil is out now in the UK.

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One last thing: The Mousetrap is coming to Nottingham at the Theatre Royal -I’ve never seen it nor know anything about it despite its status as longest running West End play. Time to purchase a ticket I think 😉

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

The first time I came across Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, was as a teenager in the early 90s. I stumbled upon the channel 4 tv adaptation, which Winterson also wrote the screen play for. It was totally out of my comfort zone, totally beyond anything I had ever experienced, and I was absolutely fascinated by it.

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It was also certainly the first time I had come across a tv series with a lesbian relationship – this was back when same sex relationships were just beginning to enter mainstream entertainment. Fast forward a good 26 years and I’ve finally gotten around to reading the book itself, thanks to it being the July/August read for the Feminist Orchestra book club that I am part of on Goodreads (I can’t believe how long it has actually taken me to write a review and I’m really not sure how we’ve got to October already!)

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Winterson used her own life as a base for this novel, later returning to this time in her life to write her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? In the introduction of my copy (the one pictured) Winterson writes,

“The trick is to turn your own life into something that has meaning for people whose experience is nothing like your own.”

The story is of Jeanette, as a child and then as a young woman, who is adopted by a zealous Pentacostal, deeply complex mother and a father, who pretty much fades into the background and is most noticeable for his absence. Against a Northern, working class setting, a bright and incredibly resilient Jeanette finds her way through her childhood and is relatively happy to settle into the role her controlling mother has shaped for her with the end goal of becoming a missionary. Then everything changes as she falls in love with a girl and in doing so she fundamentally challenges her relationship with her mother and the church.

I absolutely LOVED this book in so many ways…

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The northern setting and memories of my own childhood: I grew up in The Midlands of the 80s and so Jeanette’s world felt like home to me; be it a description of her street or a reference to this larger than life period of time. Having grown up in what was a very poor part of Nottingham,  I also really appreciated Winterson’s very genuine, honest and identifiable portrayal of the working class.clipart47719038

Jeanette’s observations of the world around her: Winterson’s writing style is an absorbing combination of humour, a really dry matter of factness  and really dark moments, all intertwined with such skill. It felt like Jeanette of the book was talking to me, that the book was a conversation taking place and I really like this informal connection with the reader.clipart47719038

The incredibly complex character of her adopted mother and the often very difficult relationship she has with Jeanette. Love is probably not the right term to use for this but I certainly thought it was extremely well portrayed. Though some of the mother’s actions are described in a very matter of fact way, there is no doubt to the sadness and sheer neglect going on. Not only does her mother have no idea how to raise a child or how to connect with Jeannette, her own needs are always put first. This was difficult to read and also made me really appreciate Winterson’s honesty. Towards the end she describes her mother as enlightened and reactionary at the same time and this is it in a nutshell. On the one hand, she is very much in charge of her own life, following what she believes in, making the things she wants to happen a reality. On the other hand, she is incredibly prejudiced, sticks to the rules of the church without question and has an intense adverse reaction to Jeanette’s  same sex relationship. There is so much more I could write about this relationship – I would love to have had this as a set text for A-Level English literature!clipart47719038

I love how little Jeanette is so fierce in what she believes and what she feels. She only goes to school once the education department forces her mother to send her, by which time she has experienced a very alternative, certainly not age appropriate version of homeschooling and is consequently incredibly isolated in the school environment, which is such a stark contrast.  She seems alien to the children and the teachers don’t know how to handle this unique girl. Yet she put her point of view regardless: when she submits her needlework for a prize and is frowned upon by her teacher, Jeannette fiercely says, “Just because you can’t tell what it is , doesn’t mean it’s not what it is.”  Her imagination is equally awesome; her re-imagination of  Noah and the Whale at Sunday School is hilarious.clipart47719038

The running theme of what makes a relationship and what is expected of a girl in society. There is much talk of settling and making do. Whilst there are certain opportunities as a woman in the community, as I will mention later, everything is strictly confined, anything out of the “normal” faces a harsh backlash. There is also very little genuine love of any kind in the world Jeanette grows up in. When Jeannette fall in love with Melanie, the treatment of this relationship is horrendous and utterly heart-breaking. Having confided in her mother, she is physically locked up in the house so that the pastor can drive the demon out and her unnoticed glandular fever means much of that time is spent hallucinating.  Her mother also arranges for Jeannette to be ‘held to account’ (read publicly shamed) for her sexual orientation at their church, where she is forced to stand up and repent or face being ostracised. A further attempt to destroy Jeanette’s identity is when her mother  burns all her letters, cards and jottings, taking away any form of expression.clipart47719038

This is a book of fierce, resilient females. They are not always likeable, a lot of what they do is hard to get behind, but it is a book of women, who run their local church, run their families, their shops, their social circles. Men are few and far between, either absent in character or portrayed almost comically even when they try and assert their dominance (though often, their actions are not in themselves comical). There is such strength there to create a world they can navigate in challenging economic and political circumstances. Life was hard, their resilience strong.clipart47719038

Stories to make sense of the world: Jeanette tells fictional tales within the main narrative and these stories are a way to make sense of her world; it is a way for her to find her voice and the only way for her to break free of the many constraints she faces.  These stories take a lot of thinking about and I still need to return and analyse a bit deeper – that is how rich they are. Some readers have questioned the need for these stories in the narrative, I think they add a whole other layer.clipart47719038

In one of the last stories, the protagonist Winnet  knows she must find a boat to navigate a river, much like Jeanette needs to find her way out in the world regardless of the many challenges she faces. Winterson writes,

“No guarantee of a shore. Only a conviction that what she wanted could exist, if she dared to find it.”

I think this is what I will take away from Oranges more than anything else; that energy and need to write your own story, even if you are frightened and alone, even when the path is not linear and there is still darkness ahead, even if you have absolutely no idea what will happen next.

 

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash was a Pride Month read for me and another adventure into the land of graphic novels. Slowly but surely, I feel I am finding a connection with this genre as I look beyond the words to the artwork and what an amazing skill it to be able to tell your story in words AND images.

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This is Maggie Thrash’s debut, a graphic memoir of her teenage years away at an American summer camp where she experiences love for the first time in the shape of Erin, one of the camp’s counselors.  To be given the Honor Girl award of the title, the chosen girl must represent the traditional, very conservative, “female ideals” that the camp fosters. So, the scene is set for the exploration of values, identity, same sex relationships and what being a girl means in this summer camp context of the early 2000s.

My thoughts…

Starting on a light note, the period details really appealed to me as I remember that particular time very well, so Maggie’s love of the Backstreet Boys felt very nostalgic indeed and the scene where the girls are taking it in turns to read the latest Harry Potter book brought back fond memories too. This is not to say that it would only appeal to a certain age group though, as the story itself and the themes it develops are absolutely timeless.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25The portrayal of Maggie’s thoughts and actions as she falls in love for the first time are so believable, so accessible and I was totally transported back in time to my experiences. I especially liked how Thrash shows how monumentally important the smallest moments felt; arms brushing against each other, a caught look, treasured conversations that were perhaps quite average on the surface but that you spent hours trying to read in between the lines of. The novel really evokes those familiar feelings of adolescence; the insecurities, the awkwardness and the sheer, exhilarating intensity of it all.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25The contrast between this gentle love story and the values held by the camp leaders is powerful. Though coming out is not easy for Maggie by any means, the grown ups cause far more problems than her fellow campers. Towards the end, one of the leaders tells Maggie she must stop all this nonsense as camp is a space for girls to be free and innocent and her behaviour is therefore unfair on the other girls. Maggie is made to feel that she is a bad person, that her feelings are wrong and must be suppressed. Erin is then seen as a predator, though she is only a couple of years older than Maggie, who has turned Maggie into something undesirable. I felt so angry on Maggie’s behalf and so angry that such ways of thinking still very much exist eighteen years on.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25In terms of the artwork, I believe Thrash has a style that matches the narrative and the characters brilliantly. It is the art of a 15-year-old Maggie with clean, sparing illustrations and a dreamy palette of colours. They are raw rather than refined, direct rather than focused on subtly.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25Though they may at first appear to be simple, the panels are cleverly thought out to interact with what the words don’t say. And by not over complicating the artwork I feel that Thrash allows the reader enough room to interpret what is happening for themselves – the images are starting points, guidelines.

Thrash’s story is incredibly bitter sweet, this is not a story of happy ever afters but a genuine story of a vulnerable, fragile relationship, full of hope and missed opportunities. You may need tissues.

Educated: Tara Westover

This memoir deserves all the praise and attention it is being given. I’m actually finding it hard to find the words for the impact this book has had on me.

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Let me start with a brief(ish) synopsis:

Tara grew up in the mountains of Idaho, her parents were survivalists, believing in the End of Days. Her father had such a distrust of society, education and medicine that the family lived in very isolated circumstances; Tara didn’t attend school and even the most severe injuries were only treated at home. An intense man with undiagnosed mental health problems and an extreme belief system, his influence on Tara’s life was immense. Her mother, a midwife, herbalist and healer, comes across as a woman who could stand her ground, who could have moments of great insight, yet who could also be blind to what was happening in her family and ultimately stood by her husband. Because of the isolation from mainstream society, there was no one to intervene when Tara’s older brother became increasingly violent towards her. When another of Tara’s brothers managed to go to college, her view of the world began to change; she educated herself at home and learned enough to achieve a place at a local university, leading to places at Harvard and Cambridge.Westover-imagewith-book-articleLarge

I need to say here that I came to this book with my own experiences of childhood trauma and that I found a kindred spirit in Tara. Though our circumstances and geography differ, there was so much in this book, that made it feel like I was reading about myself: that feeling of being totally alone and that no one would believe you even if you did speak up; the essence of surviving; finding escape and purpose through education; the continuous coming to terms with who I am; the darkness and detachment that at times prevails; forever trying to figure out how I feel about what happened in the past and those who should have been the nurturing, responsible adults in my life; always trying to figure out how I fit into the world now…

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A further reason why I loved this book is the style in which it is written. It could so easily have been a sensationalised piece, it could so easily have been a platform to voice blame and bitterness and portray only the dark side of her upbringing and all the consequences she has faced since leaving that life behind. But she doesn’t. Instead she reminds us that she can only write from her own memories, that memories are personal and can be subjective. She talked to family members about what they could remember to add further perspective. She also shows such a deep understanding of how complex family relationships can be. That there are, despite it all, some moments of tenderness, that it is ok to have happy childhood memories amongst the darkness, and that it is easier said than done to close your heart and cut off contact.  Her emotional honesty shines.

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The strength it took for Tara to explore her story, write it down and share it with an audience is awe -inspiring to be honest. What I will take away from this book is how remarkable women can be in the most challenging of environments, how vital education is and how there are so very many shades of grey when it comes to the people we love.

I shall leave you with a newspaper article and a couple of short videos that I found most interesting – just click the links below:

An interview in The Guardian

A Random House video where Tara speaks on the topic of estrangement

A CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour